01/31/2013 06:05 pm ET Updated Apr 02, 2013

The Idea of America

President Obama's inaugural speech was an occasion for Americans to listen to our collective memory -- our common history. The work of citizens in our republic is difficult work. It often feels confusing and chaotic, like the cacophony of voices engaged in our American debate is pulling us apart. We can become discouraged. Even Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, found cause to reassure himself and others in March 1799 that, "The spirit of 1776 is not dead." It lives, he reminded his reader, in the body of the American people.

Almost every other people in the world define themselves by race, ethnicity, and religion. Americans do not. Americans pledge allegiance to ideals embodied in our Declaration of Independence, our Constitution, and our republic. We believe in the rule of law not genetics. American ideals are not partisan. They are not political. They are American. And the implication of those ideas -- like monitoring the growth of a plant from seed to flowering -- plays out in the history of our nation and our peoples.

The president used his speech to remind us all of this "spirit of 1776." He referenced founding documents -- the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. He referred to the story of American slavery, the abolitionist movement, and the American Civil War. He spoke about the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century. He alluded to the Common School movement and to the land grant universities. He mentioned the early twentieth century progressive reforms of Teddy Roosevelt and others. Obama noted the New Deal policies of the 1930s and 1940s. Americans heard him acknowledge the World War II and Cold War accomplishments of what we call the "greatest generation." He included references to the beginnings of the women's rights movement, the height of the African-American's struggle for Civil Rights, and the equal rights struggle of gay Americans.

Most important, the president began his speech with an allusion to Enlightenment philosophy: "What makes us exceptional -- what makes us American -- is our allegiance to an idea . . ." The Declaration of Independence is a masterful summation of a century's worth of intellectual thought by philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes, Algernon Sidney, John Locke, Montesquieu, Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and David Hume.

America is an idea -- an idea constantly revitalized by the work of citizens. We do not come to the idea of America naturally. It is not coded in our DNA. Being an American is a learned trait. Learning history, reading the philosophers old and new, engaging the literature of the past and present -- humanities education -- is core to earning the right of citizenship in the United States. We need to make the conscious choice to embrace the ideals of this nation; it is the responsibility of our citizenship. Our story is the struggle to make those ideals real for every citizen. It is the never-ending work of an American citizen.

It is time that we as a nation rededicate ourselves to that task. We the citizens of this nation must call on our community, state, and federal leaders to rededicate our educational system -- preschool, K-12, community college, university, and continuing education -- to the education of citizens through the teaching of the humanities. Education is the essential stimulant of citizenship. It fuels a robust community, state, and national debate to realize the Enlightenment ideals on which the nation is founded.